Why not to listen to the 10,000 hour rule.

I’ve recently been engaged in a lively discussion about the 10,000 hour rule from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. I chose to take a stand against this rule because I believe it to be flawed and discouraging. When you willingly play devil’s advocate on a site where you know you’re going to get flamed for your thoughts, it’s interesting to see how your own thoughts develop. Knowing I’d be wasting my time continuing the discussion there, I decided to move my thoughts here where they belong. Maybe I’ll find a few of you playing devil’s advocate against my ideas too! 🙂

I imagine how this is how Seth Godin felt when he challenged Vince Lombardi’s advice that “winners never quit and quitters never win.”

Pick up a copy of Outliers and at least skim the chapter on the 10,000 hour rule. You’ll find real quickly that it’s not a happy chapter. It talks about how child prodigies start young and put in time (it doesn’t say they were willingly doing the time — the choice to do something is a lot different from doing something your parents want you to do!). It also says that the true “greats” are born within a certain period of time and anyone outside of this calendar analysis has missed the boat. To me, that’s really discouraging!

Fortunately, I don’t believe that one must be a child prodigy or be born within a window of opportunity. So come along with me on this journey to debunk the 10,000 hour rule and let’s prove that success comes to those who work for it without counting “billable hours!”

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2 Responses to Why not to listen to the 10,000 hour rule.

  1. John Barkwell says:

    Perhaps you should actually read Gladwell’s book, instead of “skim[ming] the chapter on the 10,000 hour rule”.
    The point made by the studies that Gladwell’s refers to is that it is largely “directed” practice over a substantial time period, and not some inherent “talent” which is correlated with mastery of any particular field. The reference to date of birth was with respect to hockey players where birth at a certain time of year gave players a physical advantage within their “age group” because they were always the most physically developed within that age group.

    While Gladwell’s does point out that there are important factors which are beyond an individual’s control (place of birth, socio-economic status, supportive family, being at the right time, place and age during a major paradigm shift); his chief point is that the primary determinant of mastery is consistent, persistent, directed practice (and NOT, as some suggest, the mere accumulation of hours).

    The 10,000 hour rule should encourage you because it means that those who dedicate themselves to mastering a skill have a much greater probability of achieving their goal than those who are not willing to put in the necessary hours: further, as a teacher, you should be particularly delighted that there is NO evidence that those who achieve mastery had any special “talent”. In other words, anyone can become an excellent painter, writer, or musician regardless of. “talent” if they put in the necessary hours practicing in specific, directed ways. The rest, the achievement of fame, glory and fortune requires, as Mick Jagger says, a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time with the right people.

    • dawnblair says:

      Thank you for your comment, John. It was, just as you said, because some suggest that it is the mere accumulation of hours that I decided to write this post.

      I feel that 10,000 hours is an arbitrary number, which might be why I dislike it so much. Yes, one does need to put in the work to developing a skill and yes, it does take a lot of hours, but labeling it as a “10,000 hour finish line” makes it seem like that’s all one ever has to do. It’s like an accountant saying, “Okay, I’ve put in 10,000 hours preparing tax returns. I don’t need to take any more continuing education courses to learn about new tax laws.” Or what about a doctor who didn’t want to continue learning new techniques? Yes, one can dedicate themselves to mastering a skill but that does not mean it ever ends. There is always more to learn. I’d rather see a dedication to that lifelong learning that someone filled with hubris because they’ve put in 10,000 hours and have “therefore mastered their craft.” I want to see the person is following their passion and invested in improving what they are doing rather than the one who is paralyzed by the need to be perfect before they show their work to anyone.

      As a side note, if I followed this 10,000 hour rule then I shouldn’t be teaching anyone to paint for I haven’t accumulated this many hours in painting. I’m not even close. But do I worry that since I haven’t mastered my craft with 10,000 hours that I shouldn’t be teaching it to others? I won’t lie — there are times when I do feel ill-equipped for the challenge, but when I have someone say, “How do I fix this?” I find myself searching through my toolkit of techniques to find the right answer. I have to. It forces me to stop and think about the situation. It makes me grow. Has this now become part of my 10,000 hours of learning and mastering my craft? You bet your booty it does! Even when I pass that 10,000 hours though, I can guarantee you I will still feel just as much of a newbie as I do now with several thousand hours under my belt. How do I know this with such certainty? Because I feel that way about my writing, which I have spent 10,000 hours on easily and still feel like a newbie working on mastering my craft.

      So, I very much agree with you that it is not an accumulation of hours but rather that “consistent, persistent, directed practice” you mentioned. No one becomes a great baseball star by sitting on the sidelines dreaming about fame and fortune. It’s getting out there and doing the work. One will never “catch the big one” by casting a line into a lake that has no fish no matter how long they sit there.

      My whole point is: make the decision to do the work, do the work, and never stop improving yourself.

      Thank you again, John, for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it. Blessings!

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